“Cessation of Hostilities: Beyond the Worship Wars”
Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Daniel R. Anderson-Little
Opening Worship Service of the 2012-2013 Program Year
St. Louis Chapter of the American Guild of Organists
Hope United Church of Christ, St. Louis, MO
September 24, 2012
Words of Greeting and Introduction
It is an honor to be with you tonight as you begin your new program year. I have long admired the work and mission of the AGO and am grateful to Bill Wade, the Minster of Music--Organist at Trinity Presbyterian Church in University City where I am the Pastor for the invitation to be with you tonight. As we begin this celebration, allow me to give you a brief autobiography that will, I hope, give some insight to how I have invested myself in the work that we as leaders of holy worship have all committed ourselves to. I am not only a life-long Presbyterian, but a sixth generation pastor standing in a line that stretches back to my great-great-great-grandfather who was ordained 1829. In my 21 years as an ordained pastor, I have served churches in Detroit, Kansas City, and St. Louis, encompassing inner-city, urban and suburban ministry, as well as worshiping in a whole variety of styles from high art classical to African American gospel.
I am also blessed to have an extensive background in church music. I grew up in a 2000 member congregation in New Jersey that involved more than 200 children and youth in their choirs as well as 100 adults. I sang the lead part in Amahl and the Night Visitors in five different productions; I was a panda bear in a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde; I have sung Britten's Ceremony of Carols both as a boy soprano in an SSA arrangement as well as bass in an SATB version. I attended two week-long RSCM choir camps as a boy. I rang handbells, played in an Orff instrument choir and play the bassoon in the church's Oratorio Orchestra. In college I had the opportunity to sing with Dale Warland at Macalester College, the highlight being perfoming Penderecki's St. Luke Passion at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, Germany under the baton of Penderecki himself. As you can see, I come to my work with an ear trained for pastoral and liturgical ministry as well as an ear trained for church music. Again, I thank you for the gracious invitation to share in this worship service with you tonight.
Sermon – I Corinthians 9:10-23
As you likely noted from my introduction, I have conducted all of my ministry in multi-cultural settings. But that isn’t really saying much anymore, because in the 21st Century, all of us are engaged in multi-cultural ministry. And so the ninth chapter of I Corinthians with its discussion of navigating the obstacles of multi-cultural becomes a help to us as we seek to be faithful in our own time. So, worship wars...is this a topic that is familiar to anyone here? I thought so. Throughout out my ministry I have confronted not only the tension, but the outright hostility that people can express when worship isn't done THE RIGHT WAY. In my church in Kansas City, we were about 60% African American and 40% White. If we did even one or two gospel songs I would get questions whether we were ever going to have "dignified" music again. At Trinity, where we experience a wide variety of music--traditional, global, folk, jazz, gospel, spirituals--I get similar questions. "Why did we even renovate the pipe organ if we aren't going to play it all the time" (we use our piano on a regular, but limited basis at Trinity). Well I come here tonight to say two words to those of us who continue to wage this battle, who continue to take these worship wars up on a regular basis. And those two words are: Stop it! Just stop it!
Now please hear me: I do not direct this appeal simply to organists and church musicians as if you were the problem, as if you were the ones who bear the sole responsibility for these worship wars. No, I am talking not only to you, but also to me and to all pastors, to Worship Committees and to choir members. Furthermore, I am not asking for a cessation of hostilities because I do not think that what we do in worship isn't important and that it doesn't matter; rather I make this appeal to you tonight because I believe that what we do in worship vitally important and that it does matter--deeply so.
So why make this appeal? My first reason is that the rest of the world doesn't care about our worship wars--the public that isn't part of the church finds our internal arguments to be petty and yet another reason why they should stay as far away from church as possible. Now that does not mean that we within the church shouldn't care about the design and implementation of worship--that we shouldn't weigh our choices carefully and that we should never disagree about what is included in worship and what is not. But if our mission as the church is to go into all the world to share the gospel, then why would we put so much energy into this? And if the church is the best marketing tool for the church, then being a church in conflict over worship style isn't very attractive.
Another problem with our worship wars is that they often assume that the container or worship is as important as or more important than the content or worship. And to be sure, the container is part of the content--the medium is always part of the message. But Jesus didn't say they will know you are my disciples because you play contemporary praise music or because you play the pipe organ. No, they—the world that is—will know that you are my disciples because you love one another. This affirmation of who we are as Jesus’ disciples doesn't imply that we will worship in one style or another, but maybe, just maybe it can begin to change the way we talk about how we will worship and what music we will use—and our discussion might become generative rather than degenerative.
Now some will contend that we should stop arguing over worship because tradition doesn't matter--that we don't need to concern ourselves with what others did in the past. But as people of faith, this simply isn't true. We stand on the shoulders not only of our Biblical forefather and foremothers, but on the shoulders of our forbearers on the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries who wrote so much of the amazing music that continues to speak to us today. A quick story: about 10 years ago at our Good Friday Tenebrae service, our music featured our very good choir, our very good Cassavant organ and a very good solo violist. The music was mostly classical, that is, traditional. When I left the service with my 2nd grade son, he proclaimed that the service was amazing. The music, the classical, traditional music spoke to his young spirit and he experienced God in a powerful way.
Then again, to claim that we must protect and preserve a traditional style of worship and music at all costs is also to miss the point. We have a name for institutions that exist to protect and preserve various traditions--and they are called museums. And museums are wonderful institutions. But that is not the church's calling. I would argue that to play Bach or Mozart or Monteverdi or Penderecki or Matthias and to play them well in the church is important only so far as they help the people God worship God. And so much of that music endures because it continues to help people to do so. But my guess is that much of the music of the Renaissance and Baroque and Classical and Romantic periods are no longer sung or performed anywhere because it wasn't, well, it wasn't good enough to endure. If we are going to sing Brahms or sing Mendelssohn, let's do it because it conveys the gospel, because it helps people encounter the living God, here and now.
I fear much of our worship wars started and continue to fester because so many of us decided that there is a better way, there is better music, there is a right way. And when we harden those positions, we stop hearing each other and instead engage in a zero-sum game--if someone else gets what they want, I will lose. Is it any wonder we call them “worship wars”?
Well, my purpose here tonight is not simply to describe where so many of our churches are struggling, but to point us in some directions as we go forward. And here is where I find the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians to be most instructive—for he calls us to develop an ear to hear the needs and preferences of those to whom we are called to minister. I didn't mention my final reason why I think we need to leave our worship wars--our world no longer speaks, or sings if you will, in one voice and in one style. Most of our neighborhoods and cities resemble what former columnist Mike Royko once said about Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago: you can hear “stick-em-up” in 26 different languages. Our neighbors, indeed, the members of our churches come from every corner of the globe where what constitutes "traditional" is very different from what our churches have historically considered traditional. We have the opportunity in our worship to be in relationship with people who used to live in far off lands and now live next door. So if we are going to embrace that opportunity, we will need to start to listen and speak and sing in new languages. While the globalization of the world and church presents many challenges, it opens us up to new ways of encountering God and sharing the good news of God, just as it did for the Apostle Paul in his time.
As we move beyond the worship wars, we also have the opportunity to experience new combinations and juxtapositions that can bring the word of God alive. I want to share two stories about where traditional music gained new power and impetus because of the presence of non-traditional music. One happened at Trinity about a dozen years ago. It was during the summer when we let our paid soloists choose their own music. Our bass soloist selected an aria from Mendelssohn's Elijah and the song People Get Ready by Curtis Mayfield. He sang People Get Ready early in the service and Elijah later. People loved them both--and I am convinced that they were able to hear and receive the richer, more complicated piece by Mendelssohn because our soloist had already drawn them in with a more contemporary piece. And both were well done and both helped us worship God. The second story happened a little over a year ago. As an alumnus of Macalester College, I was invited to preach for Macalester Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. The Macalester Concert Choir sang for the worship service. Now you have to understand: Westminster is one of the great traditional churches in the upper Midwest with a history of great traditional worship. Well, on that Sunday the Macalester Choir sang both O Radiant Dawn by James McMillian and the well-known African American gospel piece, Total Praise. One traditional, one modern. And both were exquisite. Would the congregation of Westminster respond well if gospel were sung every week? I doubt it--but on that day, it was just perfect. And that is the great challenge it seems to me--to find what works, what works for this congregation, on this day. To limit our palette of music and styles is to miss what is possible.
One more appeal to you who are musicians: please never lose opportunities to educate your congregation. Bill Wade has a regular practice of supplying listening notes for music that he plays on Sunday morning. He doesn't do it every week, but when he does, he gives us context and gives us things to listen for. Every church musician I have ever had the privilege to work with picks music with care and because he or she thinks that this piece will enhance or deepen or broaden worship. So, please, from time to time, help us see what you see and hear what you hear. Conductor Benjamin Zander in a wonderful TED talk stated that he doesn't want to increase the proportion of the population who listens to classical music from 3% to 4%, but from 3% to 100%. In my experience, we can paradoxically attract more folks to the richness of classical music by offering more and greater variety and by inviting everyone into the experience.
So, where do we go? I don't think the future of church music and worship style is as much a destination as a mindset—a mindset that seeks the generosity spirit that Paul expressed in his ministry as he sought be all things to all people. Some churches will continue to feature classical and traditional music and do it with excellence and their congregations will thrive with it. Others will go in a different direction and use contemporary praise music and they will thrive with it. Others still will find some fluid combination--they will experiment--and like all experiments some will succeed and some will fail--but as they are faithful to proclaiming the gospel, they too will thrive. What I am suggesting is not easy—for if we are going to move beyond the worship wars we are going to have to give up some of our cherished notions of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong—we’re going to have to give up the idea of winning or losing. But as we are able to let go of some of that, we can experience what the Apostle Paul experienced in his own ministry—not only what he able to share the gospel will all people of all backgrounds, but as he did he was able to share in its blessings. So my appeal tonight is not for a style or styles but for an engagement--an engagement with our tradition, an engagement with the world around us, an engagement with what is possible, and engagement with what is beautiful, an engagement with what is true. And finally an engagement with God who calls us not finally to satisfy ourselves, but to provide contact points for all people to encounter God's majesty and God's love.